Far Afield: Tradition, staggered

Author: Jason Kelly '95

Jason Kelly

One of the arguments against a college-football playoff is that it would wreck the bowl system — to say nothing of the damage to the polyester-blazer industry. There may be wreckage, true, but the claim overlooks an important point: the bowls have been ruined since about 1997, give or a take an alliance or coalition.

I’m a playoff guy. It’s simple: 16 teams, including all 11 conference champions to maintain the importance of the regular season. Four rounds: first two Saturdays in December on the home fields of the higher-seeded teams, first two Saturdays in January at bowl sites. Dust off your hands. Done.

But that’s not going to happen. Not for a while anyway. The university presidents in charge of the Bowl Championship Series prefer it their way — the better to concentrate power and sponsorship dollars in the major conferences they represent. And, they insist, to preserve the bowl tradition.

Much as I would love to see a playoff, preserving the bowl tradition would have been the next best thing. The BCS compromised. Somehow the system managed to bleed the smarmy charm from the old system while adding none of the taut intensity of a single-elimination tournament. Traditional matchups — and the interest they generate — have been lost to the regimentation: upstart TCU finally gets a shot (which warms a playoff hopeful’s heart), but underwhelming UConn does too.

Only one game matters now, and it will be January 10 before they get around to it. The rest are sideshows with varying degrees of interest — albeit no shortage of hype, which is not the same thing. What are Corso and Herbstreit but carnival barkers, telling passersby to step right up and witness the have-to-see-it-believe-it, amazing, mysterious Horned Frogs and Razorbacks?

I’m sucker enough to watch. It’s fun, and maybe I’ll know the answer to the Aflac trivia question and amaze my friends and win a stuffed duck. It would just be more fun if the games held the slightest whiff of big-picture intrigue, the slimmest hope of contingency (if Notre Dame wins, and Florida State beats Nebraska …).

Now the insignificance of everything except the Not-Even-A-Traditional-Bowl-Anymore Championship Game is part of the plan. In the interest of pairing No. 1 against No. 2, the rest of the teams had to be reduced to computer-spit-out afterthoughts.

The artificial separation of worthy contenders ignites debate that fuels excitement, and so the system, even in the maelstrom of its own making, can be deemed a commercial success, if not a competitive one. Everybody knows the relative strength of No. 1 and, say, No. 9 can’t be resolved on talk radio.

Not that the smoke-filled rooms created much more clarity, but at least all the fun happened on New Year’s — a tradition, you might say — instead of lingering into January like a plastic Santa the neighbors won’t put away.

When was the last time you heard the phrase “New Year’s Day bowl”? This year there are more games after January 1 (seven, including Orange, Sugar, Cotton and the one for all the tortilla chips) than on New Year’s Day itself (six, including something called the TicketCity Bowl).

Those staggered traditions suit the system because there’s no point in scoreboard watching. Nobody invested in the BCS cares about that anyway, as long as we’re watching.

Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at jasonkelly545@gmail.com.